I've been teaching 8th Grade American History at my school for the past ten years or so. This year, due to staff cutbacks, I've started teaching 7th Grade Social Studies as well.

The 7th Grade curriculum is not terribly well defined. The State of New Hampshire has a list of curriculum standards that should be met in the 7th and 8th grade, many of which match up nicely with American History, which means that the 7th Grade content ends up being an odd mixture of topics:
  • Mapping Skills
  • Comparative Religion
  • Ancient Rome
  • Medieval History
  • The Age of Exploration
  • Economics, or Colonial America or maybe Municipal Planning (The last unit is still up in the air)
Right now, we are in the middle of our Medieval History unit, which should - in theory - be easy for me, because long ago, in a fit of naiveté, I actually majored in Medieval History (which explains, in part, my second career in pizza delivery). 

But that's only in theory.

As it turns out, designing a new curriculum from scratch involves an alarming amount of improvisation. I've ended up "punting" more this year than I'm comfortable with.
I have to confess that I've taken the easy way out with what I've presented to my 7th graders this year. I've focused pretty heavily on warfare and mayhem - partially because it's engaging for 12 year-olds, and partially because it's what I'm interested in, myself. But I haven't felt like I've presented a very well-rounded view of Medieval Europe, so I decided to teach a bit about monasticism and Medieval scholarship.

After some basic explanations of the idea behind monasticism (okay - I admit, I just like typing the word "monasticism"), I went a bit into the history of illuminated manuscripts.

We examined slides of several examples of illuminated manuscripts, then I had them read this:

File Size: 39 kb
File Type: doc
Download File

And I had them watch this:

and this:

And then I had them create their own illuminated manuscripts.

The assignment seemed pretty straightforward at the time: 

"Use this sized paper and illuminate the lyrics to your favorite song. You must include an illustrated initial (the oversized first letter that begins each passage), an illustration and a border. All of these must emphasize the theme of the lyrics."

I supplied the paper and art supplies. I knew that it would probably take these guys a little longer to draw things out than I thought, so I set aside two class periods for them to work on their manuscripts. I had not counted on the ability of a group of 12-13 year-olds to use an infinite amount of time to complete any project. By the fourth class period, some of them were just warming up.

Interestingly, some of the students were really reluctant to make an illuminated manuscript. I had thought they'd really get into using their favorite song lyrics, but I think it was still a big risk for some of them to express themselves artistically. Also, many of the borders and illustrations had little, if any relation to the overall theme of the songs they had chosen. I had to do quite a bit of encouraging/barking/growling/cajoling to get the best efforts from many of them.

Nevertheless, the end products were pretty good:
In the end, I've got mixed feelings about this project.

On the one hand, I'm not sure how much they learned about Medieval scholasticism from this project. If I look at that list of State Social Studies Frameworks, this project doesn't address all that many of them. 

Also, I'm not sure that this was the best use of a full week of class time. If I did this project again, I'd definitely re-emphasize that each element had to tie in with the theme of the song lyrics they had chosen. I'd include a check-list. (If I've learned anything this year about teaching 7th grade, it's to ALWAYS include a check-list.) I'd give them one day to work on this in class, then have it due several days later, so they could put in the time at home to do a good job. I'd also work with my colleagues in Literacy and Art to emphasize the meaning of the term, theme.

On the other hand, this was a hands-on project, which 12 year-olds really, really need. It was engaging and has some of the students more focused on what we're doing in class, generally. It was a break from hacking and stabbing. I had thought this would be a good way to let the girls in my classes shine, but it turns out that the best work actually came from the boys, which was an awesome surprise. 

I posted these manuscripts on two bulletin boards in the hallway outside my room and they've had a crowd of middle-schoolers standing in front of them pretty constantly for the past week. It's really nifty to get that kind of peer-response for this kind of work.

Overall, I'd rate this as a mildly successful first run-through of a project and I'll probably do it again, next year. 

I'd give myself a B on this.

Leave a Reply.